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O’Hare’s United Airlines Terminal

2010 June 16
by Caroline Nye Stevens

O’Hare International Airport

It looks and sounds like a time machine.  But it’s not. It’s an 800ft tunnel that connects concourses B and C in Terminal 1 of Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Designed by Helmut Jahn, it’s not a typical tunnel. Moving walkways pull globetrotters through the long passageway beneath multicolored neon lights that race along its reflective ceiling. Undulating illuminated walls and chiming transcendental music complete the time-warped effect. When people emerge from the escalators into the United terminal they might expect to find themselves in the year 2050. More likely they are running late for a plane that’s about to take off promptly in the year 2010.

The underground walkway is just one part of the 1987 United Airline’s Terminal 1 complex – all of which was designed by Jahn of Murphy/Jahn. The rest of Terminal 1 is nothing like Jahn’s attention-grabbing tunnel. Instead it is defined by wide-open spaces filled with natural sunlight. Jahn related it to “the exhibition halls, railroad stations and greenhouses of the turn of the century.” It is far more conservative and classical than the tunnel that lies beneath it. The tunnel isn’t completely unprecedented though. The “L” station, or gateway to the airport for many of us, has a lot in common with Terminal 1’s tunnel – especially seen in its wavy colorful walls. Though a bit more subdued and built a few years earlier, it was also designed by Jahn.

CNS 2010

The digitized and flashy tunnel is typical of Jahn, who long ago appropriated the nickname “Flash Gordon” from the popular comic strip, and is famous in Chicago for his controversial design of the James Thompson Center. Jahn had the help of an artist and a composer in achieving this flashy effect for the tunnel.  California artist Michael Hayden designed the 744 ft. light sculpture entitled “Sky’s the Limit” that electrifies the space. Though it looks like neon, the lights are actually composed of argon gas and mercury vapor in phosphorescent glass tubes that were then painted with an enamel ink. A complex system, the installation is operated by three computers. Synchronized to the movement of the light sculpture is chiming music composed by Chicago native William Kraft. Kraft described the music saying, “It is all pleasure, nothing violent, nothing dissonant. Eerie is not something I wanted. The outsides are meant to be beautiful and calming and let people know they are in for a pleasurable experience. The middle part is fun. It’s real fun.” (The music has since been changed to Gershwin. See the comments below for more information).

CNS 2010

Jahn turned what could easily have been a mundane and daunting expanse into a lively sensory experience sending our imaginations into other realms. Traveling through this other-worldly space leaves weary travelers hoping that the future of air travel might be time travel.


Interested in more information on the United Airlines tunnel? Here’s the website for Michael Hayden, and here’s a brief biography of composer William Kraft. And here’s the website of Murphy/Jahn. Looking for more photos of the United Terminal? If so, check out BLUEPRINT: Chicago’s facebook page.

6 Responses
  1. June 16, 2010

    As is usual with Jahn’s designs, soon after the United tunnel was completed it met some controversy. Many did not like Kraft’s avant-garde music and it was soon replaced by Gershwin. I haven’t been able to find any more information on this, though my assumption is that the music is now again Kraft’s. I however admit to not being entirely sure, though it doesn’t sound like Gershwin. If you have any thoughts on this please let me know.

  2. Jeff Kimmel permalink
    June 23, 2010

    Here’s an interview with William Kraft where he discusses this project:

    My understanding is that the current music is an arrangement of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” — fragmented into bits and pieces (partially because you can only hear the loud peaks of the music). The reason for using “Rhapsody In Blue” is that it’s United’s theme song — they purchased the rights to it sometime in the 1970s, and they’ve used it in their commercials and in-flight videos ever since.

    • June 23, 2010

      Thanks for clearing that up and providing so much helpful information Jeff!

  3. December 29, 2010

    I am the composer/arranger tapped by United (through their advertising agency at the time, Leo Burnett USA) to replace the original music with an adaptation of Gershwin’s themes, which are used in United’s advertising. If you would like more information on the music that has been in constant use for over twenty years now (the original music was played for about a year), I’d be happy to give you the full story.

    • carolinenye permalink*
      December 29, 2010


      Please do share with us the full story. I think all of my readers would love to hear what you have to say (as would I). Thank you for introducing yourself to us!



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